The Biblical Case for Women in Leadership | CBE International

You are here

The Biblical Case for Women in Leadership

1. In Creation, God made man and woman equal in dignity and status, giving authority and dominion over creation to both (Gen. 1:27-28). They are male and female, differentiated by divine act, yet equal in essence/nature/being and in authority.

2. Genesis chapter 2 seeks to picturesquely elaborate on the polarity of the sexes. The solitary Adam on his own is helpless, incomplete. No animal can meet his need for companionship. God’s solution is to make woman, an equal partner, for the solitary Adam. Only when the woman stands at his side does Adam/man become man distinct from woman just as Eve/woman is woman distinct from man. Nothing in Genesis chapters 2 and 3 suggests that woman is subordinated to man before the Fall. Yet, even if a hint of this could be found in some minute detail in the story, it would not be of any theological consequence. The original creation is not depicted as perfect. Sin was possible and the devil was present in the Garden of Eden. The Bible is characterized by a forward-looking eschatology that sees perfection in the future, in the consummated new creation.

3. The hierarchical ordering of the sexes is a consequence of the wilful disobedience of Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:16). Man’s superordination and woman’s subordination reflect the fallen order, not the creation order.

4. Nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus ever speak of the subordination of women or the “headship” of men. In fact, he says and does much to deny this. This is amazing since Jesus lived in a thoroughly patriarchal culture. It is true that the twelve apostles were all men, but this is a moot historical detail and of no surprise in that cultural context. However, no teaching is based on this fact. In any case, it would seem the twelve had to be men if they were to be recognized as the founding fathers of the new Israel, the counterpart of the twelve male patriarchs. They also needed to be men because their main work was to be “witnesses” of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus (cf. Acts 1:21-22). As a general rule women could not be witnesses in Jewish society at that time.

5. In Acts, Luke makes chapter 2 programmatic for the new age that dawned with the gift of the Holy Spirit to all believers. In the new Spirit-endowed community, Luke quoting Joel says, “Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,” and then he repeats the point (Acts 2:17-18). When the Spirit is present, men and women may proclaim the word of the Lord in power. For Luke, prophecy is a term that can cover all Spirit-inspired speech, including teaching.

6. Paul’s teaching on the ministry of the body of Christ presupposes that the Spirit can bestow the same gifts of ministry on men and women. These gifts of ministry given to both sexes are to be exercised in the congregation (1 Cor. 12-14, Rom. 12:3-8, Eph. 4:11-12). His practice matches his theology. He speaks positively of women prophesying, leading house churches, and ministering in other undefined ways. He even commends a woman apostle (Rom. 16:7). She is to be understood not as one of the twelve but as one of the larger number of missionary apostles, who were raised up by the Holy Spirit and said to be “first in the church” (1 Cor. 12:28, cf. Eph.4:11-12). These examples of women leaders in this patriarchal cultural context are significant. They show that wherever possible, Paul put his non-discriminatory theology of ministry into practice.

7. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul insists that men and women are to be differentiated when they lead in church prayer and prophecy by what they have or do not have on their head. Paul’s primary reason for penning these words was to insist that when women lead in the congregation in prophesying or praying, they do so as women, and men do so as men. Individual comments in this passage taken in isolation could suggest Paul accepted the subordination of women, but for every comment that might suggest this, there is a matching comment that excludes this idea. That Paul endorses the public verbal ministry of men and women in the congregation is highly significant. Paul judges prophecy to be the second most important ministry given by Christ to the church, behind apostleship and before teaching (1 Cor. 12:28).

8. In Eph. 5:23, Paul calls the husband the “head” of the wife, using the Greek word kephale in the sense of leader, or even “boss.” The word, however, is given new content. To be the “head” of one’s wife, he explains, involves not rule but sacrificial self-giving, agape-love. Jesus exemplifies this kind of leadership in his self-giving on the cross. Not one word is said in this passage about who makes the final decision on important matters, or about family management. In 5:21ff., Paul is seeking to transform patriarchy within his patriarchal cultural setting, not endorse it. In its original historical context, this was a liberating text. It should be read this way today.

9. The apostolic exhortations to wives to be subordinate that parallel the exhortations to slaves to be subordinate are not to be distinguished in character or purpose. In both cases, practical advice is given to people living in the first century where patriarchy and slavery were social norms. Nothing suggests that the exhortations to women alone are timeless, transcultural precepts. They are not grounded on an appeal to the creation stories. In Ephesians, the only time Genesis is quoted is to affirm that in marriage husband and wife are one (Gen. 2:24, Eph. 5:31).

10. The call to silence in 1 Cor. 14:34-35, some scholars argue, is to be seen as a later non-Pauline addition to the text. If it is genuine, Paul only asks wives to desist from asking questions in church. Paul’s advice is, “If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home” (1 Cor. 11:35).

11. In 1 Tim. 2:11-12, the prohibition against women exercising authority and teaching in church is addressed to a particular situation. This text is to be understood against the backdrop of false teaching that had erupted in Ephesus, teaching that had led both men and women astray. Women had been allowed to teach in church since Paul first founded the church, but now he forbids them from doing so. He changes his policy to meet the specific challenge facing the church. What the women had been teaching deceived many. The reasons he gives for this exceptional command in verses 13 and 14 reflect the exceptional problem addressed, although we do not know exactly what it was. Women are not to teach as if they are first in the church, for Adam was created first, and they are to remember that it was Eve who was deceived. These are ad hominem arguments that were telling and applicable to the problems found in that church at that time. They were meant to counter the arrogance of some women and their opportunities to give false teaching. Elsewhere in more theological passages, Paul insists that “in Christ there is a new creation, the old has passed away” (2 Cor 5:17), and that Adam is responsible for sin (Rom. 5:12 ff.). In 1 Cor. 11:3 ff., Paul uses similar ad hominem arguments based on the creation stories to establish a case for women covering their heads when leading in prayer and prophecy in the church and for men leaving their heads uncovered, a cultural practice virtually no one thinks is binding today.

In the case just outlined, it is to be noted:

1. The Bible is read in canonical order starting with Genesis and ending with 1 Timothy.

2. Jesus’ positive stance toward women is given the emphasis it deserves.

3. Paul’s non-discriminatory, Spirit-given theology and practice of ministry is given precedence over his three regulative comments (1 Cor. 11:3-16, 14:34-35, 1 Tim. 2:11-14), dealing with specific problems.

4. These three regulative texts are understood to be dealing with particular and quite specific problems facing first-century churches in a patriarchal culture.

5. Prophecy is understood as next in importance to the ministry of the apostle, and not always distinguishable from teaching. Both teaching and prophecy need to be evaluated.

6. No appeal is made to the novel, post-1970s ideas that:

i) in creation God established a static social order that subordinated women to men in the home and the church;

ii) men and women are differentiated primarily by their differing roles;

iii) sexual difference can only be upheld if women are subordinated; and,

iv) the parallel apostolic exhortations to slaves and women to be subordinated are to be sharply distinguished.

(These four ideas have absolutely no exegetical support, and when adopted, only result in eisegesis.)

Join the Cause

Barring women from using their God-given talents is an injustice that diminishes the gospel and its impact in the world. CBE International works to inspire and mobilize Christians with the Bible’s call for women and men to co-lead and co-serve as equals.

Learn More